Ah Nam

After a morning of herding his mother’s milking cows with Paddy, Joe, dressed in his town clothes, begins his journey up to Beechworth along the rain corrugated Woolshed road.
As usual, Joe had made sure to slip away while Margret was in the dairy, he found it easier to leave quietly than to explain himself. Aaron would mock that this was because Joe was frightened of his mother, but the reality was far less simple. He sought to be understood by her, he wished for her to see him as he was and not merely as the son she wanted him to be. Joe had no desire to be chained to life on the farm, he wanted to savour all that was around him, but that came at a cost.
Looking up at the overhanging clouds, which again threaten rain, Joe hastens his pace passed Thomas Lloyd’s Eagle Hotel, where the Chinese cook, his queue braid wrapped around his head, kneels beneath the veranda scrubbing a cast iron pot.
Along the road in front of him, several European and Chinese miners argue close to Bishop’s shanty, one of the many that dot the Woolshed. One of the men, whose face and beard is blackened with soot, brandishes a pick, gesturing wildly to the Chinamen. Joe steps aside as a hawker travels past and slows his pace. His father had always warned Joe not to stray within wielding distance, as the men were often mad with drink after a long day on their claim.
Adhering this advice, Joe keeps his distance and walks out wide past the miners, with the three men sneering at him as he passes.
“You know where there’s gold to be found don’t you, eh?” The dumpy one of the trio sneers, swigging from a black bottle of gin.
Ignoring the taunt, Joe hears the rattle of wheels from behind him, as the Crawford & Co coach rounds the bend, on route to El Dorado.
He jumps out of the way as the four horse team canters past him, water splashing against the sides of the red painted coach.
“Keep to the side, lad!” The coach driver hollers, while he snaps the reins, urging the horses on before the climb.

***

Arriving in Beechworth, Joe walks past the imposing granite walls of Beechworth Gaol and rounds the corner of Ford Street towards the government camp.
Nearing the courthouse, he hears the cries for leniency from inside, before the resounding thud of the hammer silences the building.
Suddenly, the heavy wooden door is pulled open and a boy, dressed in rags, is hauled outside by a police Sergeant.
“The next time you cause such disruption, you’ll find yourself acquainted with the lockup!” The heavyset man barks, pushing him onto the footpath.
Joe steadies his pace to watch, near the shade of an oak tree, while the agitated boy fumbles with his hat and pulls it over his matted blonde hair.
“Old Stewart is innocent!” The boy yells, kicking crushed granite up at the officer. “He never broke into Mrs. Devlin’s house in Finch Street, you’ve locked up the wrong man!”
The Sergeant’s face glows red with rage.
“I’m allowing you a chance to leave quietly, boy!” He spits, brandishing a pair of handcuffs, “If you do not care for your liberty, I will be compelled to arrest you!”
“You’ve already taken one man’s liberty, what difference will mine make?” The boy retorts sarcastically and scoops up a fistful of crushed granite, throwing it in the uniformed man’s face.
Cursing loudly, the injured man doubles over and clutches a hand over his eye. He blows hard on his whistle as the boy runs across the road towards the Albion Hotel.
“Where the hell are you, Mullane!” He bellows, blowing on the metal mouth piece again.
Alerted by the high pitch whistle, a Constable emerges from the police yard, Joe’s eyes fixing on his spurs which glint in the sunlight.
“Smith’s bastard of a son…” The Sergeant wheezes, still clutching his right eye, “Clothed in rags…Has headed up Ford Street!”
The Constable stands, unmoving, a look of confusion spread across his face.
“What are you looking at, you fool?” The Sergeant snaps, “Get after him!”
“Yes sir,” He replies with a salute, before sprinting up Ford Street in pursuit of the boy.
The Sergeant turns irritably to Joe and the small collection of bystanders that have gathered around the courthouse.
“You’ve all had your entertainment, now get on your way!”

***

Coming to the crossroads of Ford and Camp Street, Joe looks towards the Hibernian Hotel, recognising the familiar figures of Aaron and James Wallace as they stand under the veranda of Turner’s watchmaker’s shop. With Aaron dressed in his usual mismatch of clothing, a red sash tied around his waist.
“Oi Byrne!” He shouts at the top of his voice, causing the couple stepping out of the Bank of New South Wales to stare in bewilderment at the flashily dressed eighteen-year-old, as he swaggers toward Joe, a pie from Dunlop’s in his hand.
Waiting for a buggy to pass, Aaron and James cross the road.
“Good to see you James,” Joe says, holding out his hand.
James shakes it and smiles.
“You too, Joe.”
“You managed to get away from the old woman, then?” Aaron asks, taking a bite of pastry.
“I didn’t tell her I was leaving. After Paddy and I had finished milking, I got dressed and left.”
“He’s frightened of her,” Aaron jests, elbowing James.
Joe rolls his eyes.
“I’m planning on going to Ingram’s to read.”
“Ingram’s?” Aaron drawls, “Come to the Burke Museum with me and James, you can waste your time reading any day of the week.”

***

On entering the museum, the trio are greeted by a stout suited man in spectacles, who proceeds to address them of the rules, paying particular attention to the way Aaron is dressed, who, as Joe himself notes, appears as if he is an agent for Ashton’s Circus.
“Is there a reason your hat strap must be worn in that manner, sir?” The man asks of Aaron.
“It is how I prefer to wear it,” He replies with a shrug of his shoulders.
“While you are in the museum, a level of discreetness is preferred.”
Aaron mutters under his breath and conceals the leather strap.
Walking past the rows of long wooded writing desks that he would normally be sitting up to reading, Joe follows Aaron and James through to the display of taxidermy
With his attention taken, Aaron brushes past a wedgetail eagle, leaving it swaying unsteadily on its stand.
The spectacled man stands swiftly from his desk.
“Would you mind keeping your distance from the displays, sir?”
Joe glares at Aaron.
“Watch where you’re going, you idjit.”
“It’s not my fault there’s bloody birds everywhere,” Aaron says impatiently, brushing past a display case.
James stoops to view a white ibis, its feathers covered in a layer of dust.
“This is the same species of bird father and I were hunting last weekend, at El Dorado.”
From the adjoining room, Aaron’s heavy footsteps can be heard as he moves about the exhibition.
He pokes his head around the corner, “Joe!” He calls, “Come and look at this!”
An elderly gentleman who had been reading an inscription through a magnifying glass, turns indignantly.
“Young man, you are in a museum, not a public house.”
Aaron straightens.
“Aren’t people allowed to talk in museums?”
“Not at the top at their voices,” He answers dryly.
“Are you in charge of the place?”
“You do not need to be ‘in charge’ to adhere to public etiquette.”
Aaron scowls at the address.
“And they teach that at the Benevolent Asylum, do they?”
James looks towards Joe with a frown.
“Will he ever learn to stop playing the fool?” He whispers, as Aaron swaggers toward them.
“Bugger this place, I’m heading back to Sheepstaion Creek. You coming Joe?”
Joe shakes his head.
“I’m going to Ingram’s.”
“Suit yourself,” Aaron responds, pulling his hat strap back under his lip.

***

Having finally made it to James Ingram’s bookshop, Joe sits in the cluttered backroom, reading The Count of Monte Cristo, a novel which is most favoured by the sixteen-year-old, since Mr. O’ Donoghue had first suggested it to him four years previously.
While Joe is lost in the revenge of Edmond Dantès, James Ingram’s voice echoes from behind the curtained doorway, as the Scotsman directs a female customer on what seeds are best planted during the cooler autumn months. He and James, or Mr. Ingram as Joe always called him, had formed a close association, with Joe being in awe of the bookseller’s knowledge and grandeur, while, in Joe, James saw a well behaved, quiet lad, who sought a good book and likeminded conversation.
Picking up the small teapot, Joe pours himself a cup of black tea, and drops a sugar cube into the steaming liquid. Whenever Joe visited Ingram’s shop, he would always be given time to browse the shelves and choose a book to read in the backroom, with the Scotsman keeping it aside for him until he next visited. Joe relished the opportunity to read undisturbed and to allow himself to become immersed in the story. Finding the peace to read with such conviction at Sebastopol was often a hard task, with his younger siblings never far. On the times when he’d seek solace in the gully, or at the falls, Aaron would soon follow him and it wouldn’t be long before an argument erupted over Aaron’s noisy attempts to grab his attention.
Joe sips the tea and looks across at the endless abundance of stock, piled high against the walls. A thick layer of dust covers the cases, which are full of children’s toys and books. When Joe had first been ushered into the storeroom, after James had found him reading Oliver Twist amongst the shelves, he couldn’t quite believe his eyes. Never had he seen such an array.
Bringing his attention back to the pages of the Count of Monte Cristo, the bustle of the street resounds as the shop door is opened once again.
“Good afternoon William Nam Shing,” James greets the storekeeper, “How be your health on this pleasant afternoon?”
“And a good afternoon to you too, Mr. Ingram,” Nam Shing replies in his familiar tone, “It is indeed a very nice day. Much more pleasant now that the rain has left us.”
“Now that much is certain,” James remarks assuredly, “For a few days there I was thinking I’d be needing to replace my roof. I’ve never seen so much water spilling from my gutters.”
Joe smiles to himself as he turns the page of his book, James Ingram had been frantic with worry about his roof and the need to replace it, which had very much annoyed the bootmaker next door, whose shop was under the adjoining roof.
“The Canton camp has been truly terrible,” Nam Shing remarks, “Muddy enough for lotus flowers to grow.”
This produces a hearty laugh from the bookseller.
“What is it I can be doing you for?”
“I am needing your advice Mr Ingram. Ah Nam is causing much disturbance and I need to get him back to Sebastopol, but I have not found any Europeans I can trust to direct him back that way.”
James Ingram was seen by many as the guardian of the camp and had recently stepped in when a group of boys attempted to stir up the quiet Chinese. As a sign of their gratitude, some members of the Canton camp had gifted the bookseller with jars of preserved ginger and fresh vegetables from their gardens.
“Hmm,” The Scotsman ponders, “I have young Joseph Byrne reading in my storeroom, I believe he’ll be journeying back to Sebastopol soon.”
“I know the young man well, he is most respectful and speaks our language well.”
“Joseph,” James calls, “William Nam Shing is here to see you.”
Joe puts the book down and stands, straightening the creases out of his trousers.
Emerging from the curtain, he sees the wealthy Chinese shopkeeper, his crow black hair cropped short, wearing his favoured tweed suit with a polished gold watch chain hanging from his silk waistcoat. James Ingram stands beside him, dressed in a long black coat and cravat, an encyclopedia under each arm.

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Nam Shing greets Joe with a bow, “Néih Hóu, Ah Joe. I’m glad to find you looking well.”
“Néih Hóu,” Joe bows, “Thank you.”
“I have a proposition for you, if you would be gracious enough to accept.”
“Haih,” Joe answers with slight trepidation.
“I have been sent word that Ah Nam is causing trouble in the camp,” He begins, pulling a book from the shelf to read the title, “He has been gambling at Ah Goon’s in Little Burke Street and has not repaid the debts owed. I believe he is an acquaintance of yours?”
“Yes, I am acquainted with him. He lives in a hut with Ah Fook and Le Chang.”
“Le Chang”, Nam Shing smiles, sliding the book back onto the shelf, “I have not seen him for many years. How is his health?”
Visions of the sickly miner begin to swirl in Joe’s mind, Le Chang had once been a jovial member of the Sebastopol camp, his sluice box blessing him with much good fortune. But his health had suffered greatly in the past few months, and despite the urgings of his fellow miners, Le Chang wouldn’t consult the doctor, believing them to be the bringers of bad luck and death.
“He doesn’t leave his hut often,” Joe begins, “And when he does, he is always supported either side. I am surprised he has not sought your help.”
Nam Shing looks downcast, “My help has been offered to him and on many occasions…” He breaks off and waves a hand as if to dispel the concern. “Bá paau,” He says in Cantonese, making a fist on his chest, “He is a foolish man with too much pride.”

***

After finishing the scalding cup of black tea James had insisted upon having before he left, Joe steps out with the storekeeper, his gold watch reflecting in the window of Young’s Boot Store as they walk down Camp Street toward the Spring Creek Camp.
“Thank you for accepting to take Ah Nam back to Sebastopol. I do not trust my people with the task, the man is a trickster and will pretend he is ill.”
“I’m glad to help,” He lies, feeling anxious at being the one to persuade Ah Nam to leave Ah Goon’s gambling house.
While he knew the man on friendly terms, Joe was also acutely aware of how unpredictable the Chinaman’s mood could be. In February, Ah Nam had returned back to his hut rattled with drink and hunger. On seeing no rice in the cooking pot, he and quarrelled violently with Ah Fook, even going so far as to attempt to throw the man into the fire. The news of this attack had spread rapidly through the camp, with Joe hearing the tale from Jack Sherritt, who shared a gold claim with the near burnt man.
Shaking the memory from his mind, he and Nam Shing pass the Empire Hotel, where the loud chatter of drinkers and card players flow from the open doors.
Joe glances into the window, recognising one of the drinkers as John Phelan, the local dog catcher and pound keeper, who Aaron had started breaking in horses for. Despite his mate’s protests that he was alright, Joe found Phelan to be an unlikeable rogue, who had no qualms with using the friendship of others for his own benefit.
Turning down the lane of Little Bourke Street, two flashily dressed women stand either side of a table, where a group of Chinaman gamble what money they have. The veranda of the hut is animated by the squawking of white cockatoos that bob up and down in their cages.
As they pass the men, one of them, his face a mess of pockmarks, looks up and tips his head.
Little Bourke Street was notorious for its brothels, gambling dens and the women who called it home, with the Ovens and Murray Advertiser taking great pleasure in detailing the depravity that was conducted in this area. But, as Joe himself noted, there was never any reporting of the dancing girls who frequented several of the hotels in Beechworth, or the drunks who would fall into the gutters and stay there snoring till morning.
Continuing down the lane, English woman Sarah Payne, the madame of the Chinese camp, stands beneath the veranda of her notorious residence, an ornate fan fluttering in her fingers. She steps aside as a Chinese miner stumbles out of the doorway, tucking his tunic into his rough woollen trousers.
“I trust I’ll be seeing you again soon, Ah Tip,” She says, her lips parting in a sly grin.
The miner tosses her a small bag of coins and disappears into an opium den.
Sarah is joined under the veranda by a younger woman in a lilac coloured dress with a tightly synched waist, her soft face framed by a mess of auburn curls. Joe looks across at the girl, his eyes settling on the open buttons of her bodice and chemise, revealing the milky skin of her chest.
Sarah winks and motions with a slender finger for him to enter.
“Plenty of girls for a sweetheart like you,” She offers.
Noticing Joe looking at her, the young woman brushes back the fabric, exposing the roundness of her breasts and lifts her skirts.

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Joe’s mouth falls open at the invitation.
“No need to be shy,” Sarah continues, “You’ll find Brigid is most obliging. Especially for such a handsome young man.”
Feeling himself enticed, Joe goes to step forward but Nam Shing pulls him away.
“Joseph, this is most certainly not a place for respectable gentlemen,” He says sternly, turning back to the women, “Have you no common decency?”
Feigning offence, Sarah clutches her chest, “No common decency, sir?”
“Yes, that is what I said,” Nam Shing confirms, “No person of decency would act so wantonly in a public street.”
“A thousand pardons, sir,” She answers sarcastically, “But when a lad shows interest, myself and Bridgit here are going to offer. How else do you expect us to survive? Begging on the street?”
“There is little difference that I can see,” He remarks, looking on the woman with disdain, “You should be ashamed of yourself.”
Sarah snaps her fan shut and steps toward Nam Shing, coming eye to eye with the storekeeper.
“It might not be to your taste mister. But my customers are well pleased for the service.”

***

On their arrival to the gambling house, the dark clouds that have been threatening rain finally succumb and it falls in heavy sheets over Beechworth. Joe and Nam Shing seek refuge under Ah Goon’s bark veranda, the brightly coloured banners snapping back and forward with the wind. A large tabby cat that had been stalking a mouse beside the drain suddenly scampers to join them and scratches its claws against the veranda post.
Nam Shing looks on the hut with disdain and wipes away the droplets at his forehead.
“This is where I leave you Joseph, If I have to be in the same room as the wretched man, I fear I might kill him.”
Entering the darkened gambling house, Joe looks around the squalid room, the signs of fighting evident in the shattered pottery and upturned furniture. Several men recline in the corner of the room in a stupor, opium pipes cradled possessively in their arms.
On a piece of matting, Ah Nam lies sleeping, his que braid twisted around broken shards of glass.
“Ah Nam,” Joe whispers sharply, “Get yourself up.”
The dozing Chinaman swats him away with the back of his hand.
“M̀h’hóu dihm ngóh,” He snarls, warning Joe not to touch him.
“Get up,” Joe repeats, unintimidated, “It’s me, Ah Joe.”
Ah Nam rubs at his eyes and focuses his gaze on Joe, a look of surprise covering his sleep lined face.
“Ah Joe,” He mumbles, sitting up, “I not know it was you. Hóunoih móuhgin.”
“I’m here to take you back to Sebastopol, William Nam Shing sent me.”The Chinaman spits on the floor.
“Néih góng mātyéh wá?”
“You owe money. Mē jaa,” Joe asserts.
“Ah Goon?”
Joe raises an eyebrow.
“What about Ah Goon?”
“He was one who squealed like pig?”
“He said you would not repay the debts owed.”
“Huh?” Ah Nam frowns, itching at the bloody scars on his neck, “Tùhng ngóh góng gwóngdùngwá.”
Joe takes out his coin purse and shakes it to make his meaning clearer.
“You not pay Ah Goon, that is why you need to return to Sebastopol.”
“Gām’yaht?”
“Haih, gām’yaht. He wants you out of the camp today.”
Ah Nam laughs sharply at the accusation and rubs a finger across the black stains of his teeth.
“Wāisigéi,” He grunts, pointing towards the chipped terracotta jug on the shelf.
“Whiskey?”
“Whis-key,” The Chinaman sounds, “Haih.”
Joe picks up the jug, wrinkling his nose at the collection of insects that float in it.
Ah Nam snatches it from him and takes a swig, the excess liquor running down his neck, glazing the open wounds
“Diu!” He curses, throwing the jug against the slab wall.

***

Walking past the Vine Hotel on Sydney Road, the melodic tune of a piano plays from within, a woman’s voice signing in synchrony with the music.

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Ah Nam rolls his sleeves up past his elbows, exposing the protruding veins of his forearm.
“Ngóh séung yiu sāang’gwó,” He says, pointing to the overhanging branches of Henry Vandenberg’s apple tree.
Joe shrugs at the request.
“Take one if you want it.”
The Chinaman reaches up and grabs an apple, biting nosily into the ripe flesh.
“Ah Goon is dog,” He announces with a mouth full of half chewed apple, “He be sorry.”
“Let’s just get back to Sebastopol before the moon is in the sky,” Joe sighs, his gaze catching on two elegantly dressed women who approach them along the path, laced umbrella’s clasped in their hands.
Joe smiles at the women and touches his hat in greeting.
“Good afternoon.”
They reply with a warm smile, but look warily upon Ah Nam as he throws the apple core onto the road, the scratches on his neck still glistening with blood.

***

Along the Woolshed road, the miners who Joe had passed on his way up to Beechworth, still loiter outside Bishop’s shanty, their laboured movements attesting to the amount of alcohol they had consumed.
“You brought a yellow bastard back with you?” One of them calls, issuing crude laughter from the others.
Ah Nam stops still and turns toward the men.
“Chíngmahn dím chīngfū? What I call you?” He retorts.
“They’re stupid with drink Ah Nam,” Joe urgers, understanding the threat. “They don’t know what they are saying.”
Ah Nam ignores him.
“Wòhng sīk?” He asks the men.
The fatter of the three men steps forward and gestures a profanity with his sausage-like fingers.
“You ain’t in China now, speak English you dirty ching.”
Ah Nam’s face contorts into a grimace.
“Ching?”
The miner glares down on the Chinaman mockingly.
“That’s the word for little fella’s like you.”
Ah Nam tips his head back, a wad of spit forming in his mouth.
“Don’t you d…” The man begins, but breaks off when a covering of phlegm lands in his grimy beard.
“You yellow bastard!” He roars, smashing the gin bottle against the stump.
Joe attempts to restrain Ah Nam, but he breaks free and hurls his five-foot three frame towards the brute, clutching his hands around his neck. The pair grabble violently as Ah Nam attempts to strangle the crimson faced miner, who splutters and curses against the tightening grip.
“That’s enough!” Joe yells, tearing Ah Nam away.
The miner falls heavily to the ground and vomits in the mud.
“Ching, huh?” The Chinaman snarls, removing his slipper, hitting him across the face with it.
Joe pushes him forward angrily, keenly aware of the crowd that has begun to form.
“Gòu le! That’s enough!”

***

Crossing the footbridge over Reedy Creek, Joe feels the harshness of his mother’s words growing louder with each step to Sebastopol.
Ah Nam glances at his worried appearance with a frown.
“Ah Joe?”
Joe takes in the darkening sky with a shake of his head, “I should have been home hours ago,” He accepts dejectedly.

***

Trudging along the road, Joe’s eyes follow the muddy tracks made by a wagon, with the constant ache of his legs making him wish he was the one riding in it.
As they pass Abraham’s store, a young man can be heard cursing loudly up ahead.
Ah Nam’s lip twitches in agitation as the stationary wagon comes into view, with two girls and a boy sitting beside it on the road side.
Joe goes to give the wagon a wide berth, but something tells him that they need help…

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